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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGutta-percha Willie - Chapter 6. How Willie Learned To Read Before He Knew His Letters
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Gutta-percha Willie - Chapter 6. How Willie Learned To Read Before He Knew His Letters Post by :dreamkeeper Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :684

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Gutta-percha Willie - Chapter 6. How Willie Learned To Read Before He Knew His Letters


The next day his thoughts, having nothing particular to engage them, kept brooding over two things. These two things came together all at once, and a resolution was the consequence. I shall soon explain what I mean.

The one thing was, that Hector had shown considerable surprise when he found that Willie could not read. Now Willie was not in the least ashamed that he could not read: why should he be? It was nowhere written in the catechism he had learnt that it was his duty to be able to read; and if the catechism had merely forgotten to mention it, his father and mother would have told him. Neither was it a duty he ought to have known of himself--for then he would have known it. So why should he be ashamed?

People are often ashamed of what they need not be ashamed of. Again, they are often not at all ashamed of what they ought to be ashamed of, and will turn up their faces to the sun when they ought to hide them in the dust. If, for instance, Willie had ever put on a sulky face when his mother asked him to hold the baby for her, that would have been a thing for shame of which the skin of his face might well try to burn itself off; but not to be able to read before he had even been made to think about it, was not at all a thing to be ashamed of: it would have been more of a shame to be ashamed. Now that it had been put into his head, however, to think what a good thing reading was, all this would apply no longer. It was a very different thing now.

The other subject which occupied his thoughts was this:

Everybody was so kind to him--so ready to do things for him--and, what was of far more consequence, to teach him to do them himself; while he, so far as he could think, did nothing for anybody! That could not be right; it _could not be--for it was not reasonable. Not to mention his father and mother, there was Mrs Wilson, who had taught him to knit, and even given him a few lessons in spinning, though that had not come to much; and here was Hector Macallaster going to teach him to make shoes; and not one thing that he could think of was he capable of doing in return! This must be looked into, for things could not be allowed to go on like that. All at once it struck him that Hector had said, with some regret in his voice, that though he had plenty of time to think, he had very little time to read; also that although he could see well enough by candlelight to work at his trade, he could not see well enough to read. What a fine thing it would be to learn to read to Hector! It would be such fun to surprise him too, by all at once reading him something!

The sun was not at his full height when Willie received this illumination. Before the sun went down he knew and could read at sight at least a dozen words.

For the moment he saw that he ought to learn to read, he ran to his mother, and asked her to teach him. She was delighted, for she had begun to be a little doubtful whether his father's plan of leaving him alone till he wanted to learn was the right one. But at that precise moment she was too busy with something that must be done for his father to lay it down and begin teaching him his letters. Willie was so eager to learn, however, that he could not rest without doing something towards it. He bethought himself a little--then ran and got Dr Watts's hymns for children. He knew "How doth the little busy bee" so well as to be able to repeat it without a mistake, for his mother had taught it him, and he had understood it. You see, he was not like a child of five, taught to repeat by rote lines which could give him no notions but mistaken ones. Besides, he had a good knowledge of words, and could use them well in talk, although he could not read; and it is a great thing if a child can talk well before he begins to learn to read.

He opened the little book at the Busy Bee, and knowing already enough to be able to divide the words the one from the other, he said to himself--

"The first word must be _How_. There it is, with a gap between it and the next word. I will look and see if I can find another _How anywhere."

He looked a long time before he found one; for the capital H was in the way. Of course there were a good many _how's_, but not many with a big H, and he didn't know that the little _h was just as good for the mere word. Then he looked for _doth_, and he found several _doth's_. Of _the's he found as great a swarm as if they had been the bees themselves with which the little song was concerned. _Busy was scarce; I am not sure whether he found it at all; but he looked at it until he was pretty sure he should know it again when he saw it. After he had gone over in this way every word of the first verse, he tried himself, by putting his finger at random here and there upon it, and seeing whether he could tell the word it happened to touch. Sometimes he could, and sometimes he couldn't. However, as I said, before the day was over, he knew at least a dozen words perfectly well at sight.

Nor let any one think this was other than a great step in the direction of reading. It would be easy for Willie afterwards to break up these words into letters.

It took him two days more--for during part of each he was learning to make shoes--to learn to know anywhere every word he had found in that hymn.

Next he took a hymn he had not learned, and applied to his mother when he came to a word he did not know, which was very often. As soon as she told him one, he hunted about until he found another and another specimen of the same, and so went on until he had fixed it quite in his mind.

At length he began to compare words that were like each other, and by discovering wherein they looked the same, and wherein they looked different, he learned something of the sound of the letters. For instance, in comparing _the and _these_, although the one sound of the two letters, _t and _h_, puzzled him, and likewise the silent _e_, he conjectured that the _s must stand for the hissing sound; and when he looked at other words which had that sound, and perceived an _s in every one of them, then he was sure of it. His mother had no idea how fast he was learning; and when about a fortnight after he had begun, she was able to take him in hand, she found, to her astonishment, that he could read a great many words, but that, when she wished him to spell one, he had not the least notion what she meant.

"Isn't that a _b_?" she said, wishing to help him to find out a certain word for himself.

"I don't know," answered Willie. "It's not the busy bee," he added, laughing;--"I should know him. It must be the lazy one, I suppose."

"Don't you know your letters?" asked his mother.

"No, mamma. Which are they? Are the rest yours and papa's?"

"Oh, you silly dear!" she said.

"Of course I am!" he returned;--"very silly! How could any of them be mine before I know the names of them! When I know them all, then they'll all be mine, I suppose--and everybody else's who knows them.--So that's Mr B--is it?"

"Yes. And that's C," said his mother.

"I'm glad to see you, Mr C," said Willie, merrily, nodding to the letter. "We shall know each other when we meet again.--I suppose this is D, mamma. How d'e do, Mr D? And what's this one with its mouth open, and half its tongue cut off?"

His mother told him it was E.

"Then this one, with no foot to stand on, is Fe, I suppose."

His mother laughed; but whoever gave it the name it has, would have done better to call it Fe, as Willie did. It would be much better also, in teaching children, at least, to call H, He, and W, We, and Y, Ye, and Z, Ze, as Willie called them. But it was easy enough for him to learn their names after he knew so much of what they could _do_.

What gave him a considerable advantage was, that he had begun with verse, and not dry syllables and stupid sentences. The music of the verse repaid him at once for the trouble of making it out--even before he got at the meaning, while the necessity of making each line go right, and the rhymes too, helped him occasionally to the pronunciation of a word.

The farther he got on, the faster he got on; and before six weeks were over, he could read anything he was able to understand pretty well at sight.

By this time, also, he understood all the particulars as to how a shoe is made, and had indeed done a few stitches himself, a good deal of hammering both of leather and of hob-nails, and a little patching, at which last the smallness of his hands was an advantage.

At length, one day, he said to the shoemaker--

"Shall I read a little poem to you, Hector?"

"You told me you couldn't read, Willie."

"I can now though."

"Do then," said Hector.

Looking for but a small result in such a short time, he was considerably astonished to find how well the boy could read; for he not merely gave the words correctly, but the sentences, which is far more difficult; that is, he read so that Hector could understand what the writer meant. It is a great thing to read well. Few can. Whoever reads aloud and does not read well, is a sort of deceiver; for he pretends to introduce one person to another, while he misrepresents him.

In after life, Willie continued to pay a good deal of attention not merely to reading for its own sake, but to reading for the sake of other people, that is, to reading aloud. As often as he came, in the course of his own reading, to any verse that he liked very much, he always read it aloud in order to teach himself how it ought to be read; doing his best--first, to make it sound true, that is, to read it according to the sense; next, to make it sound beautiful, that is, to read it according to the measure of the verse and the melody of the words.

He now read a great deal to Hector. There came to be a certain time every day at which Willie Macmichael was joyfully expected by the shoemaker--to read to him for an hour and a half--beyond which time his father did not wish the reading to extend.

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